Why Does the Turtle Cross the Road?

May 23, 2018

Now that summer is approaching, it’s a common occurrence to see turtles crawling across roadways in South Carolina (and many other states). Ever wondered why that is? In honor of World Turtle Day, I spoke with Cris Hagen, Director of Animal Management at the Turtle Survival Center, a program of the Turtle Survival Alliance, in Charleston.

“Like most things, turtles have home ranges, and if there are roads in their home range, they’re going to end up crossing them. You see a lot more in the springtime, because females are moving to nesting grounds,” Hagen says.

Sometimes, these are native species. Other times, they’re pets that have been released by owners who weren’t prepared for a decades-long commitment.

“In some cases, some of these box turtles are eighty or a hundred years old, and they’re just getting smashed by cars.”

So, what should you do if you see a turtle in the road while driving?

“You have to be careful,” says Hagen. “Be aware of your surroundings, and if it’s safe to do so, yes. Take the turtle if it’s in the middle of the road, and take it in the direction it was going.”

However, Hagen says taking it to the other side of the road is as far as you should go. While it might seem like a good idea to move a turtle to a lake or pond you know of nearby, it’s actually putting the animal in potentially more dangerous circumstances.

“That turtle is just going to walk back exactly where it came from,” says Hagen. “They have extremely strong homing instinct, and they will walk for miles to go right back where they came from. In the course of that time, they’re going to cross several roads, and be in more danger.”

While active roadways aren’t the only threat to turtles today, they do contribute to what Hagen says is one overarching issue facing many species: habitat loss. Many of the most critically endangered species of turtle have also been diminished by the "rampant legal and illegal commercial collection of [adult turtles] for the flood, pet, farming and traditional medicine trades."

The Turtle Center, for its part, serves as a bank for many of the most vulnerable species, some of which are considered functionally extinct because they don’t currently exist in the wild, but Hagen says that World Turtle Day is a great time for anyone to research conservation efforts and to discover how they can create a positive impact.  

Learn more about the work of the Turtle Survival Alliance here.

Editor's note: This post was edited on 5/24/18 to clarify the major threats to critically endangered turtle species.